The Foreign Affairs Committee

Shifting ground on the Middle East


“We conclude that the Government’s decision not to call for a mutual and immediate cessation of hostilities early on in the Lebanon war has done significant damage to the UK’s reputation in much of the world. As the Minister [Kim Howells] admitted to us, the option of a dual track diplomatic strategy could have succeeded. We believe that such an approach could have led to reduced casualties amongst both Israeli and Lebanese civilians whilst still working towards a long-term solution to the crisis.”


These words are taken from a report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) published on 25 July 2007 [1].  The report, entitled Global Security: The Middle East, is surprisingly critical of recent British foreign policy towards the region, especially with regard to Lebanon but also Palestine.  It is also very critical of Israel.


Its criticism of the Government’s failure to call for an immediate ceasefire at the start of Israel’s war on Lebanon is quoted above.  It is also critical of the Government’s support for the continued collective punishment of Palestinians by the EU after the formation of the Hamas/Fatah National Unity Government in March 2007.  More fundamentally, it recognises that Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine are part of the political fabric and are not going to go away.  It recommends that the Government talk to both – which is a radical departure from the Committee’s previous stance.


All-party committee

The FAC is a 14-member all-party committee (8 Labour including its chairman, Mike Gapes, 4 Conservative and 2 Liberal Democrat).  In all probability, therefore, the views expressed in this report would be acceptable to the House of Commons as a whole.


The FAC is supposed to scrutinise the Government’s actions in foreign affairs.  I have read many of its reports in recent years and none of them would have given the Government any reason for anxiety.  This was especially true of its report on The Decision to go to War in Iraq [2], which in July 2003 performed the impossible feat of exonerating the Government for misleading Parliament on the intelligence about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”, even though the Government denied it access to the intelligence about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”.  (See my subsequent evidence to the Committee [3] & [4]).


But this FAC report is a different kettle of fish.  For the first time in my experience, the FAC has been seriously critical of important foreign policy decisions.  And in the course of doing so, the Committee made Kim Howells, the Foreign Office Minister responsible for the Middle East, look very foolish.  (Howells was appointed to this post by Blair after the 2005 General Election and was retained by Brown when he succeeded Blair in June 2007).


Of course, the Committee was not reporting on the foreign policy actions of the present Brown government but of the previous Blair government.  Criticising a past government, which cannot exact revenge, is easier than criticising the current one.  It’s possible that Brown let it be known that criticism of his predecessor’s actions in foreign affairs would not be unwelcome.  It may be that he and his new ministerial team in the Foreign Office have a mind to shift ground on the Middle East – if so, being advised to do so by the all-party FAC would be an advantage.  The Government is constitutionally obliged to give a formal response to Select Committee reports and reply to questions posed by the Committee.  The Government’s response to this report will be worth studying.


In the following, I will examine the FAC’s criticism of foreign policy towards Lebanon and Palestine.


Part I  Lebanon


Paragraphs 84 to 120 of the FAC report are concerned with policy towards Lebanon.


“It is tragic that so many innocent lives, Lebanese and Israeli, have been lost over the past weeks. … The hostilities on both sides should cease immediately …” [5]


Those were Prime Minister Blair’s words on 12 August 2006 in a statement after the Security Council passed resolution 1701.  He had waited a month to make this call, a month in which “many innocent lives” were lost. 


The Foreign Affairs Committee interrogated Kim Howells about this delay on 13 September 2006.  Chairman, Mike Gapes, asked him if he still believed “the Government was right not to call for an immediate ceasefire” [6].  He replied:


“Yes, I do, Chairman. I was out there in the middle of the conflict and I saw for myself the appalling consequences both of the bombing of Lebanon and the rockets that were being fired into northern Israel. It was very distressing and there were a lot of people, in my view, being killed needlessly and a lot of infrastructure being damaged.”


which, one might have thought, made an irresistible case for the Government calling for an immediate ceasefire.  Nevertheless, Howells continued:


“However, I also saw very clearly that the only way that this could be stopped was by a UN resolution, and there had to be some real teeth behind any ceasefire that would occur. I believe that was the right decision. … What we needed was a permanent ceasefire.”


One doesn’t need to be a genius to recognise that it was possible to call for an immediate ceasefire and, at the same time, work for permanent arrangements.  This point was put to Howells by Conservative MP, Sir John Stanley:


“Minister, in answer to the Chairman’s initial question you seemed to be taking the view that the calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and, at the same time, working for a satisfactory UN resolution were two mutually incompatible policies. Surely, a very much better foreign policy position for the British Government would have been to combine the two; to say that we were wanting an immediate cessation of hostilities and, at the same time, working for an effective UN resolution. Has there not been a foreign policy misjudgement in that by not calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities the British Government gave the clear impression that it was actively supporting the Israeli operations against the whole of Lebanon?”


Howells replied categorically:


“I do not agree with you, Sir John, about the possibility for a dual track diplomatic progress at that time.”


However, pressed shortly afterwards by Labour MP, Ken Purchase, who asked:


A short period of ceasefire, you say, may just have resulted in people rearming. Could I say that in even a day of a ceasefire hundreds of lives would have been saved?”


Howells “appeared to change his mind” (in the words of the FAC report) and said:


“I am not saying … that a dual approach might not have worked. I am not saying that and I am not dismissing that at all. Maybe it would have worked.”


The FAC sets out Howells’ contradictory positions in paragraph 97.  I don’t recall the Committee doing such a hatchet job on a Foreign Office minister before.


Bolton tells it as it was

Worse was to follow.  In paragraph 100, the FAC says:


“At the time of the conflict, many believed the United States was obstructing calls for an immediate ceasefire to give Israel a chance to defeat overwhelmingly Hezbollah’s militia.”


The FAC then quoted the words of John Bolton, the US Ambassador to the UN in July 2006, in an interview with Ed Stourton in a BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast on 22 March 2007.  Stourton asked him if the US had been “deliberately obstructing diplomatic attempts” to bring an end to the war so that “Israel could have its head.” Mr Bolton asked “what’s wrong with that?” and added that he was “damn proud of what we did”.  (For details of this revealing conversation, see the BBC press statement about the programme [7]).


The FAC wrote to Kim Howells to ask him about John Bolton’s comments. In his reply, Howells stated (see report, Ev 126):


“The UK was certainly not involved in collusion with either the US or Israel to support the continuation of hostilities or to block a ceasefire. Whilst I cannot speak for the US position [on] this matter, I do not believe they acted differently.”


The FAC commented (paragraph 101):


“There are three possible explanations for this discrepancy. The first is that Mr Bolton misled the BBC journalist by suggesting that the US blocked diplomacy at the UN because it wanted to give Israel the opportunity to destroy Hezbollah when in fact this was not the case. The second is that the US did indeed block attempts to find a quick diplomatic solution to bring about a ceasefire, but that the UK, even though it is a permanent member of the Security Council and a close ally of the US, was not brought into or made aware of this collusion with Israel. The third alternative … is that the UK was in fact brought into, or at least aware of, the efforts to obstruct the diplomatic process.  Based on the evidence provided to the Committee, we are unable to rule any of these possibilities out.”


In addition, the FAC asked (paragraph 102) that in its response to the report the Government


“clarify on what date the first draft resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire or cessation of hostilities was presented to members of the Security Council, and what the Government’s response to this draft was.”


Government responses to select committee reports are not known for providing straight answers, but it is difficult to see how the Government can avoid giving straight answers in this case.


(The Security Council had a formal meeting on 14 July 2006 two days after hostilities began and at that meeting a number of states, including France, called for an immediate ceasefire.  The French Ambassador to the UN, Jean-Marc De La Sablière, said:


France, as solemnly stated by President Chirac today, calls upon the parties to immediately cease hostilities, which is the only way to give a chance to mediation efforts.” [8]


Whether by then this sentiment had been expressed in a draft resolution that was presented to members of the Council informally is not known.)


The FAC concluded (paragraph 102) that the Government’s decision not to call for an immediate ceasefire was a mistake:


“We conclude that the Government’s decision not to call for a mutual and immediate cessation of hostilities early on in the Lebanon war has done significant damage to the UK’s reputation in much of the world. As the Minister admitted to us, the option of a dual track diplomatic strategy could have succeeded. We believe that such an approach could have led to reduced casualties amongst both Israeli and Lebanese civilians whilst still working towards a long-term solution to the crisis.”


It is difficult to argue against that.  And it’s possible that the Brown Government won’t bother to argue, preferring that the decision not to call for a ceasefire be categorized as a Blairite mistake.


(As far as Blair personally is concerned, it was definitely a mistake since it shortened his stay in 10 Downing Street by at least a year.  His failure to call for an immediate ceasefire produced a minor revolt in the Parliamentary Labour Party and, to contain it, he had to announce that he would be stepping down within a year to make way for Brown.)


Israeli action disproportionate

Unusually for a report emanating from the House of Commons, the FAC report is very critical of Israel.  Whilst nearly every other state in this world (and the Conservative opposition in Britain) was prepared to use the word “disproportionate” to describe aspects of Israeli military action against Lebanon, Britain wasn’t.  The FAC is.


Kim Howells was in Lebanon on 22 July 2006 during the war.  While he was there, he strongly criticised Israeli actions, saying:


“I very much hope that the Americans understand what’s happening to Lebanon. The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people. These have not been surgical strikes. And it’s very difficult, I think, to understand the kind of military tactics that have been used. You know, if they’re chasing Hezbollah, then go for Hezbollah. You don’t go for the entire Lebanese nation.” [9]


Despite having said this, Howells refused to characterise Israeli actions as “disproportionate” when interviewed by the FAC on 13 September 2006.  By contrast, the FAC itself was prepared to apply the word, especially to Israel’s use of cluster bombs.  In paragraph 108, the FAC says:


“… we conclude that elements of Israel’s military action in Lebanon were indiscriminate and disproportionate. In particular, the numerous attacks on UN observers and the dropping of over three and a half million cluster bombs (90% of the total) in the 72 hours after the Security Council passed Resolution 1701 were not acceptable.”


And it goes on to ask the Government to “explicitly state whether it believes that, in the light of information now available, Israel’s use of cluster bombs was proportionate”.


(The Committee wrote to the Israeli Ambassador in London, asking (see report, Ev 136):


“What was the intended military purpose of using a large number of cluster munitions in south Lebanon at a late stage of the war last summer?”


In his reply, the Ambassador failed to deal with the issue of timing.)


The FAC report also criticised Israel for its continued violations of Lebanese sovereignty since the war (paragraph 112) and for its refusal to provide the UN with full information about where it dropped cluster bombs (paragraph 112).


Shi’as under-represented

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the FAC report as regards Lebanon is the understanding shown of the Lebanese political system, and the fact that the Shi’a community is under-represented within the system (paragraphs 89 & 90).  The report describes accurately the question at issue between the March 14 coalition, which dominates the present Lebanese Government, and the opposition led by Hezbollah, which withdrew its ministers from the Government last November and has since been engaged in a protest in the centre of Beirut (paragraph 91):


“Hezbollah and its allies have been demanding the creation of what is sometimes referred to as a ‘1/3 +1’ Government. Under this system, they would return to Prime Minister Siniora’s Government, but with enough Cabinet seats to be able to veto proposals within Cabinet. This solution has been bitterly opposed by the ‘March 14’ coalition.”


The Committee ignored Kim Howells’ crude characterisation of the opposition protests as “trying to subvert the democratic process” in Lebanon.


On 30 May 2007, the Security Council passed resolution 1757 to set up an international tribunal to try individuals accused of the murder of Rafik Hariri, overriding the internal political processes of Lebanon (see my article The Security Council interferes in Lebanon - again [10]).  Remarkably, the Committee questions this “bypassing of Lebanon’s state institutions” suggesting that this “only serves to undermine them and thus increase the potential for civil conflict” (paragraph 115).


In paragraph 94, the FAC concludes that


“the tribunal process has brought to the surface important questions regarding the under-representation of the Shi’a population in Lebanon’s political system”


and recommends that


“the Government work with its international allies to help the Lebanese parties find consensus on a more representative and democratic political system”.


Talk to Hezbollah

In paragraph 120, the report describes Hezbollah as “undeniably an important element in Lebanon’s politics” (albeit with the qualification that “its influence, along with Iran’s and Syria’s, continues to be a malign one”).  The FAC continues:


“We further conclude that, as the movement will realistically only be disarmed through a political process, the Government should encourage Hezbollah to play a part in Lebanon’s mainstream politics. We recommend that the Government should engage directly with moderate Hezbollah Parliamentarians.”


This would be a major change in policy for Britain.  In making a case for such a change, the Committee reported (paragraph 119):


“On our visit, we asked a range of Lebanese politicians whether the British Government should engage directly with the group. No one, including bitter opponents of Hezbollah, told us that the current Government approach was the correct one.”


The FAC made Kim Howells look foolish on this issue as well - see paragraph 118.  There, he is quoted as voicing the following opinion to the Committee about engagement with Hezbollah:


“I am not going to go out of my way to talk to people who are trying to subvert the democratic process so that they can enhance the standing and position of an extremist Islamist organisation that does not value democracy at all.”


Paragraph 118 continues:


“However, this apparently clear-cut position was muddied somewhat when, in the same evidence session, Dr Howells told the Committee he believed he had met someone who was ‘essentially Hezbollah’.”



Part II  Palestine


Paragraphs 10 to 83 of the FAC report are concerned with policy towards Palestine.


The last FAC report that examined policy towards Palestine was Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism, published in July 2006 [11].  In it, the Committee endorsed unequivocally the Government’s refusal to deal directly with Hamas, saying (paragraph 192):


“We recommend that, until Hamas accepts the existence of Israel and commits itself to both a two-state solution and exclusively peaceful means of achieving its goals, the Government should continue to refuse to deal with it directly.”


What is more, the Committee endorsed the Government’s policy of applying collective punishment to Palestinians because a bare majority of them voted for Hamas in January 2006 (paragraph 197):


“We conclude that the Government was right to refuse to channel its aid through a Palestinian administration led by Hamas … .”


A year later, the Committee has changed its stance dramatically.  True, it cannot quite bring itself to accept the legitimacy of the Palestinian Governments formed after the Hamas victory in the elections of January 2006, that is, the Government formed by Hamas on its own in March 2006 (because, pressurised by the US, Fatah refused to join with Hamas in a National Unity Government) and the National Unity Government formed in March 2007 after the Mecca Agreement.  Both of these were legitimate governments, having been duly endorsed by the Palestinian Legislative Council in accordance with Article 67 of the Palestinian constitution, aka the Basic Law (unlike the present “government” headed by Salam Fayyad, which hasn’t).


However, the Committee has belatedly come to the conclusion that the establishment of a National Unity Government was a good thing, which should have been established earlier (and without US interference would have been established earlier) and should have been supported by Britain.  It concludes (paragraph 41) that


“the unwillingness of the EU to modify the financial boycott of the Palestinian Authority following the Mecca agreement was very damaging”


and (paragraph 50) that


“the decision to boycott Hamas despite the Mecca agreement and the continued suspension of aid to the national unity Government meant that this Government was highly likely to collapse”.


To its credit, the FAC does not repeat the lie broadcast in Britain’s name by the Quartet in a statement on 16 June 2007 [12] that the present “government” was duly established “under Palestinian law”.


It recommends (paragraph 60) that


“the Government urge President Abbas to come to a negotiated settlement with Hamas with a view to re-establishing a national unity Government across the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”


And, in a radical departure from its previous stance, it recommends that the Government talk to Hamas (paragraph 60):


“Given the failure of the boycott to deliver results, we recommend that the Government should urgently consider ways of engaging politically with moderate elements within Hamas as a way of encouraging it to meet the three Quartet principles.”


And it recommends that former Prime Minister Blair do likewise (paragraph 67).  Since he is a Quartet envoy, that is, essentially a US envoy, it is unlikely that Washington will let him.


David Morrison

Labour & Trade Union Review

6 September  2007














[12]  See